Sunday, 9 December 2012

Taking the £ out of £hristmas


 
There's a famous paradox called the Abilene paradox, based on an account of a family who had taken a day out to Abilene even though none of the family members really wanted to go. Each family member expressed an interest in going on the trip due to thinking the other three family members wanted to go, only to find out on their return that none of the four had wanted to go in the first place. They did it to keep the others happy – which is a noble gesture, even if initial honesty might have produced a better outcome.

The situation with that family is a bit like the situation most of us are in regarding the excessiveness of Christmas gift buying and card-swapping – except in this case keeping our family and friends happy is only a small part of it - the biggest part is the intense cultural pressure we have put on ourselves as we’ve become caught in a knotty web of unwanted card and present buying– one that most of us don’t really want, but from which many don’t feel able to escape. 

Let me be clear, this is not meant to be a commentary on present buying for immediate family or close friends – I am talking about the much wider circle of friends, family, colleagues, and extended social milieu with whom we are entangled in this web of cultural pressure to exchange cards and presents. 

You know what it is like – you receive a card from someone to whom you hadn’t planned on sending one, and before you know it the emergency card is pulled out of the drawer by way of compelled reciprocation. And think of the dozens of gifts that have been exchanged from within those “much wider circles” I mentioned a moment ago. Auntie, cousin, niece or neighbour drops round a bag of presents for you and your family, and you hand them your bag of presents to them – both families are caught in a cycle of obligation that neither really wanted, and one that doesn’t really benefit either of them very much. 
 
The width of your card-swapping and present exchanging circle is much wider than that of your parents when they were your age, and theirs was wider than their parents’ circle. The reason being; each decade has seen an increased effort by shops and businesses to have more £s put into Christmas – and before long it has become the social norm; a norm that has been adding heaps of pressure on most people in Britain for quite a few Christmases now.

Most gift exchanges tend to be in the region of financial equivalence; you open your present from Jenny and find a £20 set of cooking utensils. Jenny opens her present from you and finds a £23 bath robe. Unless you wanted to spend £23 on cooking utensils, and Jenny £20 on a bath robe, no doubt you and Jenny could have done better things with your money – treated the kids, paid a house bill or a bit of money towards school fees, or reduced your debt, or one of the many other things that take priority over the £23 on cooking utensils that you probably already have. 

You know that those in the “much wider circles” very rarely buy you things you actually need (nor you them) – much less things that you would spend the value of your gift to them on.  And things are worse, of course, for those who cannot afford to reciprocate, but feel obliged to do so due to seasonal pressure. If you buy a gift for someone who cannot afford to buy you one back, you’ve probably made things worse for them, despite your nice gesture. 

I think we would be doing each other a favour if we broke this taboo and wised up to the fact that we have gotten ourselves under the thrall of consumerist pressure - and I'd hazard a guess that most people agree. Here's why I'm fairly confident people generally agree with me. Apart from the extreme unlikelihood that these feelings are unique to me, there are two protocols in place in offices that give exhibition to this feeling of avoiding excess in obligation; one is Secret Santa, and the other is the written agreement that people send round via email saying we as a team have opted out of card buying because we feel the money spent on cards would be better going to charity. 

They are right. The charity option is a method of transferring money from the unwelcome obligation of card giving (not to mention the environmental issues) to more worthwhile causes. Secret Santa is good too; it is posited as each team member buying a gift for the one person they draw out of the hat. In reality, though, it is each team member entering into an obligation to not have to buy for the rest of the team that they didn’t draw out of the hat. This is understandable too – a work team of 8 members would exchange a total of 54 gifts if they all bought one for each other. The total number of Secret Santa gifts purchased is 8, which makes Secret Santa fun and worthwhile. 

Whoever originally thought up the Secret Santa idea did so because he or she knew that things are better when all the pressure is off staff members - when they don’t have to worry about who is buying what for whom, whether there will be an imbalance in the giving-receiving ratio, and whether exchanges have price equivalence. There is sound economics behind Secret Santa and sound economics behind opting out of card giving to make a charitable donation to a good cause.

Is Christmas good for the economy?
It’s clear that many people share the same view that the mass consumerism of Christmas has got way out of hand. So the other question that needs asking is this; is Christmas good for the economy? I think not, for two reasons: one it engenders poor use of spending (as we’ve seen, a great many gifts are either unwanted or not the sort of items the recipient would buy for themselves); and two, as a consequence of this, given that many presents are not ideally suited to the recipients, that means an excessive waste of labour, energy and raw materials that would have been more beneficially employed in the hands of people who actually want the things that are produced. 

It's equally false to say that Christmas must be good for the economy because people spend more in December than the rest of the year. Such people have this picture of all the extra money spent 'tricking down' and being 'good for the economy', but this is a myth. Most of the money spent excessively in December would have otherwise been more thinly spent throughout the rest of the year. If instead of buying cards and presents in December the money was spent throughout the year on clothes, furniture and having the decorators in, then retailers and tradesmen gain. If the money stays in your bank, then people who want to borrow from banks gain.

And here’s the real key thing; given that all those unwanted or unneeded gifts are bought predominantly because of social obligation – if everyone could help catalyse a big culture change and bring an end to the mass consumerism of Christmas, it would lift the burden of festive obligation and free us up to spend the money more wisely. If we turned all the money spent on unwanted or unneeded gifts into money given to the neediest people in the world, we really would make Christmas something even more special. Whether it be helping to save starving children across the world, helping to provide fresh drinking water in deprived communities in third world countries, or clubbing together to fund the local help centre that gives support to troubled families, I think it would better than what we have now.

Of course, I’m not trying to take the joy out of gift buying – there will be plenty of gifts given and received that will add joy to our lives. But how sad that this cultural pressure has crept up on us gradually over the years, as shops increase their powers of selling, kids become more acquisitive, and adults become more pressurised into meeting the demands that society imposes on them. 

Not only have we let it get out of control, but my guess is that just about everyone probably can put their hands up and say they too can recognise the need for a cultural change. I suspect fear of being the first one to bring this up in the office or the family gathering makes you reticent; and I assume that it’s easier to go with the flow and avoid the ‘Bah humbug’ or ‘Scrooge’ or ‘Party Pooper’ accusations. 

But I suspect that what I’ve said is a forecast about a change that will surely come to pass at some point. I predict that when our distant descendants look back on how we let Christmas consumerist pressures get so out of hand, I think they will recognise in us a fault that went on to be corrected by a changed consensus, once people found the courage to speak openly and honestly about feeling trapped in this culture of excessive gift buying and card-swapping. 

This is not a call to become mean and stingy - just the opposite, in fact - it is a call for extra generosity, but a generosity that will do more good than excessive present and card cycles. Besides, if you’re worried this might bring forth the stigma of stinginess, you can always spend extra on people when it is their birthday.

Finally, remember that giving can be much more; to give to those you care about, write an email or make a phone call more frequently throughout the year; or treat them to dinner; or offer to babysit their kids so they can have quality time together; or help with decorating; or offer lifts; or do something to help your elderly neighbours – these are the kinds of giving that really enrich people’s lives in addition to well chosen presents.

 
 

 
 

 

 
 

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